Sitting in her studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, while preparing for her opening on December 9th at Paul Kasmin Gallery, the artist Deborah Kass is sporting a gold nameplate necklace that simply reads "yo"—the very one she was wearing the night she happened to meet Brooklyn Bridge Park President Regina Myer at a fundraiser. Upon seeing it, Myer had inquired if she was in fact the artist behind the "OY/YO" pieces, and so began a conversation that would play no small part in landing Kass's striking new sculpture atop a hill in the park's recently revamped Main Street lawn.
"It was an uncanny series of events that led to this," Kass explains. "This is a very unusual event in an artist's life—particularly a female artist's life. It's extremely unusual for a woman to get to do a monumental piece of art in New York City." Kass has been working with the OY/YO image for some time, and it has evolved over the years. "I made a painting that said 'OY' based on the Ed Ruscha painting that says 'OOF.' I had it up at Paul Kasmin Gallery, and a friend saw it in the window and pointed out that backwards, it said 'YO.' I asked, 'Should I paint that?' And she said yes. Once it was both things, making it 3-D made sense."
As she says this, a smaller version of the OY/YO sculpture sits quietly behind her on a windowsill, appearing to gaze out at its bigger sibling. "It's variations on a theme," she says as she pours coffee from her Chemex pot. "This started as a painting, and then another painting, and then I did prints, then I did the little sculpture, and then it became this. It's really fun when an idea creates different objects. After one piece you start elaborating, and it has more meanings as you go."
A stray comment about the coffeepot triggers an anecdote about her early days in the city, and the first time she found herself in a SoHo loft while visiting a pair of artist friends: "I saw one of these coffee pots, and it was a huge epiphany because it was so beautiful and cool-looking. I just thought, 'I want to live like that.'"
Looking at Kass's work, her belief in the power of clarity and efficiency is evident. "If things function aesthetically," she says, "nothing gets in the way of meaning. You just experience it because it's formally so tight." The pieces hanging around the space illustrate this modus operandi: all around the room, bold panels of color are paired with succinct bursts of language.
When it came to size, Kass decided to go large: "Six feet was too small—it had to be bigger than a person." At 17 feet wide, Kass says, "it's like a studio apartment!" And how did she determine its placement? "Yo [set against] Brooklyn was so obvious. It's Brooklyn; it's a no-brainer."
The response to OY/YO has been effusive, and Kass is relishing the opportunity to weave her work into the fabric of the city—and borough—she calls home. Her feelings about the sculpture after seeing it nestled between the two bridges? "It's so Milton Glaser. It's 'I Love NY' for the 21st century."
OY/YO will be on view in Brooklyn Bridge Park through August 2016.